The Taste of Summer
The perfect meal, searching for seafood tamales, eating wild strawberries stoned, and more memories of heat and hunger
At least once every summer, and more often if I'm lucky, I feast on what has always been for me the definitive summer meal. This particular meal hearkens back to the summers of my childhood when I took trips with my maternal grandparents to visit Pop Walden's sisters in Oklahoma. Some of the bounty came from Aunt Mattie's garden, and the things she didn't grow were always purchased at roadside farmstands near their rural homestead north of Lake Texhoma. During those idealized childhood days, it seems that the menu for this height-of-summer meal never varied much. It was steaming ears of corn with plenty of sweet butter, juicy sliced tomatoes still warm from the garden, black-eyed peas slow-cooked with a piece of fatback, a cast-iron skillet of savory corn bread, quarter-moon slivers of cantaloupe retrieved from a glistening Mason jar in the fridge, and a bowl of homemade peach ice cream rendered more special by the time spent sitting on a towel atop the old churn freezer, turning the hand crank.
As a youngster, my only contributions to the feast were shelling peas and helping turn the hand crank, but I felt a proprietary pride in the meal nonetheless. Sitting around the kitchen table in the old frame house where my great-grandparents settled after the Oklahoma land rush, there was no air conditioning and no fancy serving pieces, but we shared the most marvelous banquet. Everyone had a plate piled with generously buttered ears of corn, big triangles of cornbread drenched in peas and pot likker, with radiant slices of tomato and cantaloupe decorating the edges of the plate. The promise of dessert was packed in salted ice under a shade tree in the back yard. Even now, it's hard to imagine a better meal.
In the best of summers, the re-creation of the garden-fresh country feast entails visits to several farmstands in search of the freshest fruits and vegetables: Boggy Creek for corn and tomatoes, a roadside stand for cantaloupes from Pecos near where I grew up, the Hill Country for peaches. The drive time is always worth the finished meal. While I'm gathering the bounty, I remember sitting in the back of a pickup with assorted cousins, Pop at the wheel, driving from stand to stand, looking for the sweetest peaches, the ripest melons, the biggest ears of corn. However, some years drought gets the corn or Mother Nature unleashes a late-season ice storm to destroy the tender peach buds or torrential July rains explode the tomatoes right on the vine. In those situations, I'm forced to shop at the grocery store, but I know in my heart that farm fresh always tastes best.
As an adult, I've added some of my own flourishes to the summer feast. I sauté onions and garlic in bacon grease and add them to the pot of black-eyed peas. I add a generous glug of hazelnut-scented Frangelico liqueur to the thick peach purée as a harmonious flavor component and to keep the peaches from freezing solid in the ice-cream mixture. I sprinkle the tomato slices with a little Tony Chachere's Creole Seasoning. The quarter-moons of cantaloupe most likely reside in a Ziploc bag rather than a Mason jar, but I still preheat my greased cast-iron skillet to 450 degrees before pouring in the buttermilk batter, so the finished product will emerge with a crispy, golden bottom crust. My personal additions notwithstanding, every summer this meal re-establishes my connection to the Waldens, hardy pioneers who migrated from Mississippi to Oklahoma and finally to Texas. I raise a frosty glass of iced tea to bless my ancestors and their bounteous feast.